The age of the mailing list is over

The email mailing list, I mean. The social Internet mode many of us started with.

For myself, I’ve read, organized, managed and written on mailing lists for well more than a decade, but these days I can hardly be bothered. Most of the ones I read have dried up. The ones I’ve recently started hardly moved. It was easier when it was the only game in town.

But no more. The problem is that a lot of us still depend on them, including the generic us of Unitarian Universalists, who for our size have a menagerie of mailing lists. Which is OK — no technology really dies, even cassette tapes and punch cards — but there are opportunities lost by not moving to something more public, interactive, selective and robust.


17 Replies to “The age of the mailing list is over”

  1. Indeed. And yet the email list lives on in UU circles. I had thought blogs or other open-to-the-public venues might replace them, but if anything has shown up with the potential to replace email lists, it’s Facebook — which the entire UUMA seems to have joined in the past two months. Only UU youth and young adults have used Facebook so far as an organizing tool, eclipsing “FUUSE” altogether. But most Facebook groups are as effectively closed as the old email lists, and because they’re more ephemeral, they’re even harder to promote and track.

  2. I’m wondering if there’s a generational breakdown in terms how people use email lists. My parents, for example, subscribe to many email lists, some UU, some for their professions, but I don’t see them joining Facebook (or any social networking site) any time soon (unless they’re already there, and don’t want to be my Facebook friends!).

  3. And fads and favorites change. No sooner was Twitter crowned the next-big-thing then it’s server woes and lack of data portability is pushing/has pushed it off its pedestal.

    FriendFeed, an aggregator, is now the rising star — I do like it better as an end-user product — but for how long? (Mine, do follow, unless you’re a sociopath: )

  4. There are some UUA-sponsored email lists that are still thriving because their role is the church version of “tech support” — users supporting other users in religious education, church lay leadership, website development, youth programs, sexuality education, newsletters, church finances, etc. For these limited tech support purposes, they work very well and they also include several years of archived and searchable knowledge related to the lists’ subject matter.

    A few of these lists (e.g. REACH-L, LREDA-L, etc) also have a social support network function as well for the members.

    LREDA does have an unofficial Facebook group that a few of us started:

    We thought it would be a good idea for DREs, MREs, and paid youth advisors who are writing safety policies about youth-youth and youth-adult electronic communication in church and district settings to have some experience with social network sites. It currently has 54 members.

    I’m currently promoting a congregational Facebook group in my congregation to serve two purposes:

    (1) internal social networking

    (2) external outreach

    Most of those who have joined the group are young adults or youth — I’m suggesting to my board members and others in leadership positions that joining this will help the congregation by providing us with yet another marketing path (e.g. your friends see that you’re a member of a church group on Facebook and they check it out, friends inviting other friends to join, etc). The congregational group is online here:

    We also set up a Facebook group for young adult who grew up in our congregation:

  5. @Steve. I was thinking of the kind of list you mentioned; I subscribe to one and it’s the best list I still read, full stop. The key is high value and low spam/distraction/rabbit-chasing.

    But it seems a shame that the Mailman archives are such a bear to search, that you have to be a member to see them (in most cases) and that they neither push nor pull content from like (say, RE in other denominations) resources. And the interface is ugly and wonky, which does matter.

    We could do better, for better results. How? not sure. But this is a field where, among organized religious folk, the Unitarian Universalists have excelled. Seems a good place to leverage our skills to cooperate with others who have other skills and gifts.

    (That said, Facebook makes me nervous for privacy and data portability reasons.)

  6. Let me chime in with my recent suggestions to convince my own church, Jefferson Unitarian in Golden, to move to an electronic bulletin board (bb). I’m not rewriting it because it can apply to lots of congregations. This wasn’t a formal proposal, only an attempt to interest some leaders.
    Martin Voelker
    I realize that some JUC Yahoo Groups already exist but a bulletin board is a much better infrastructure (and has no ads!), putting all JUC task forces under one single umbrella. With one single user account you are open to participate in, discover and read all forums, not just, say, the JUC Alerts, or CURK or CUUPS.
    Unlike internet bb’s, a board tied to a real community fosters real connections. Browsing the board will give people ideas about participation and may get them involved in JUC in more or different ways.

    We could foster the use of such a bb by automatically assigning new members a user account (I would require real names, as opposed to nicknames. This has proven very healthy procedure on other boards.) It would be a good idea to also give newcomers, friends, and eternal bystanders an account as soon as they let us know their name and email address: a bb is a 24/7 thing, you don’ t have to show your face if you’re shy, and you’ll get a sense of our community quicker. Allowing outsiders user access is okay if it goes through a moderator.

    Provided we have reliable moderators to monitor postings this is a breeze. Understand that a bulletin board is superior to email in many ways (but can be set to send email alerts when a topic question is answered). That kind of e-infrastructure is available (free or negligible cost). Off the shelf bb’s “just work”, no geeks required.

    A bulletin board is pretty democratic, but also carries dangers, easily averted by moderators. However, since we’re “a village” I don’t expect many problems.

    Here are a few examples of what a bulletin board could do:

    – Sermon topic discussions

    – you have stuff to give away (but want to avoid Goodwill)

    – discussion on goals and direction for JUC

    – you need garden help (paid or ‘pro bono’, but ideally with someone you can chat with while weeding)

    – discussion of Explorations!, special events

    – you’re taking your kids to the zoo or Science Museum, and perhaps others want to share the long ride (eg. I have a family plus membership and can take a free guest)

    – you need a recommendation for a vet (“Is there an ichtyologist in the audience?”)

    – you’d love to do a hike or bike ride (on short notice)

    – your teenager needs a job

    – you’re a grand parent who rarely gets to see those little ones (they’re back east) and would love to join in on JUC sponsored or private family activities

    – Personal recommendations for social action, websites, books, events
    (BTW, I feel that we should have a better way to announce/advertise outside events at JUC. The church is sometimes rented out but it’s easy to miss that. This may entice members to attend, making our venue even more attractive for renters).

    – choir members want to poll who’s up for a beer after practice

    – closed discussion (eg password protected) may also be possible for task forces.

    Below is a mock picture of one such BB, quickly adapted to what it might look like for JUC (hope this works, I deposited it with my own blog)

    Again, such a board is pretty much maintenance free, and is easy to set up. Finding moderators should also be easy, given how “internetted” many members are.
    A bulletin board is not just a technological gimmick, it’s a piece of social engineering of the non-manipulative, empowering kind.

  7. I’m only on one active list anymore, and it is professionally related and has restricted membership. It is still a nice forum, and serves a specialized purpose in my life. But I have no interest in Face Book, Twitter, etc.. I tried my hand at blogging, but found that what I had to say did not really fit the medium (too specialized for a general readership); nor was I able to write frequently enough to keep the content fresh.

    There are days when this 34 year old would like to deep-six most of the internet. But I’ve always had luddite tendencies, and been resistant to new technology. I find that new technological solutions do not always lend themselves to simplicty, ease of use, and reliability. My one remaining e-mail list, however, does meet all 3 of these criteria.

  8. I am a part about 10 lists that are very active and I get them in digest format – some UU, some alternative parenting, some alternative medicine, some about caring for abandoned kittens, and one networking-ish list of people who won the Truman Scholarship. The lists are super active so much so that I would never be able to be on them if I was getting each email individually. I have learned quite a bit from these lists and find them very helpful. I haven’t noticed a decrease of list activity, but I’m not exactly a cutting edge techno person either. Granted, it is harder to get one started, than to jump aboard one that is already pretty active. It reminds me of church start-ups in that if you don’t already have a core number of people, others don’t want to join because there are not enough people.
    As for bulletin boards, mentioned by MV, I find them kind of annoying. They are helpful, however, if the archive search is good and you are looking for particular information. But in terms of asking questions, lists seem more helpful because the question goes out to everyone and the answers are sent back to you, rather than you having to hope that someone who wants to give the advice you are seeking happens to stumble upon your question. Unless there are well-informed moderators or people with too much time on their hands (or a passion for the topic) that systematically read and respond to posts.
    Just my few cents.

  9. Philocrites wrote: “if anything has shown up with the potential to replace email lists, it’s Facebook — which the entire UUMA seems to have joined in the past two months.”

    No doubt! I was wondering what on earth was going on with that! LOL. Also, in the last two months, my mother and all of her friends have joined FaceBook. My grandmother told me last week that she wanted a MySpace account; I told her no (she has memory issues and can’t even remember how to pull up her web browser most days). So then she said, “Set me up on FaceBook!”

    I hate the Mailman style lists; they are a pain in the neck to administer and not user friendly. In this age of clicking and images, they feel like dinosaurs.

  10. Facebook is cool for a quick update on what your friends are doing, but it is poor in conversational mode and communication is rather trivial. Discussion boards are easy preys for trolls, spammers, and unwelcome visitors who, yes Martin, these ones should be definitely repelled! As for blogging, it is nice if someone has something to say or share, but it is mostly one-directional (comments are usually more like footnotes or addenda than same-level pieces of a larger conversation). Other possibilities, such as Second Life, have not lived up to initial expectations. As far as I am concerned, if it is about some serious conversation and not just chatting or saying hi!, I remain faithful to e-mail lists (tightly moderated, of course).

  11. I’m on 70! yahoo lists, a half dozen UU lists, several mailman lists, and just got subscribed to 4 Google mailing lists today (which switched from a private list) . I moderate 3 Yahoo lists and 2 UU lists. Obviously I like mailing lists. I also have 4 blogs and read about 50 – luckily most of the yahoo lists are less than a post daily –
    Thanks to RSS readers I stay current with blogs – but forums i always forget about, and I dont see Facebook as an improvement over mailing lists (fine for “nice work” or “good for you” comments though). or does my liking of email groups show my age?

  12. Why does the main page say there are 11 comments to this post, but when I click on the comments link, it says there are only nine?

  13. Let me add that much of the new things discussed here are completely unfamiliar to many people, including those who go online.
    I’ve actually thought about asking a web savvy teenager to offer a course called: Welcome to the 21st century!” or something where she explains for the rest of us what this means, why I’d want it, where the dangers lie, as well as some practical advice (“write meaningful subject headers, use ctrl-c and ctrl-vomit and other intuitive shortcuts instead of the mouse, highlight and right-click to search a word online or in a dictionary, getting RSS notification, a few useful websites, such as )

  14. “Thoughts?”

    Not Twitter, but something like Twitter may fill the gap. At Podcamp Boston 3, there was talk about open-source distributed microblogging, a kind of non-proprietary Twitter. This concept would get around the problems that have plagued Twitter.

    And I’m watching Seesmic, and other similar video microblogging services. I find online video conversations more satisfying than text conversations, and with the ubiquity of Web cams built into laptops and cell phones and the iPhone, there just might be a critical mass of video cameras out there. But this is still no more than a possibility — Sessmic is still in alpha, and there are lots of other possibilities out there.

    As for the hype around Facebook and MySpace, we used to hear that kind of hype for LiveJournal. LiveJournal is still big, of course, but it has a pretty limited readership. My guess is that in a few years, MySpace and Facebook will go the way of LiveJournal, with a core of dedicated users but not much play beyond that. Plus MySpace and Facebook have serious security issues — personally, I refuse to use them until those security issues are resolved.

    No matter what happens, email and email lists have been pushed beyond their real usefulness. Teenagers to day just aren’t using email (they’d rather text, and I think they’re on to something). My best guess? — as more and more people get online, there will be further fragmentation of online communication; never again will one communication mode dominate, as email has done for the past decade or so.

  15. CLF lives on an email list, and the UU Pagan networking group I’m part of (not CUUPs) uses it. I tried setting up a message board for the group but that didn’t go over well. People seem really attached to that list.

  16. Hi Scott,

    I’m definitely old school. I’m subscribed to dozens of mailing lists, which all flow into nicely sorted inbox foldes in my mail system. They are an invaluable resource for me. Most are tightly focused: support for specific software packages, local Pagan activities, and such-like. It’s easy for me to track and read when I have time.

    Web forums and bulletin boards tend to drive me nuts. You often have to go _to_ them to see what’s new, and reading/responding to threads doesn’t flow for me as well for me, compared to reading the messages in a folder of my mail program. That’s probably just a usage and comfort issue, but it is important.

    My congregation uses Yahoo Groups heavily to help manage the workload of our Coordinating Council. The files and polls sections are an adjunct to the mailing list which, though. The same happens with Carolina Spirit Quest, another non-profit I’m involved with. Our Board of Trustees has a Yahoo Group and each event we stage has Group for its staff to use.

    Twitter, Facebook, etc. have little appeal to me. Yet another website I have to keep up with. No thanks.

    There is definitely a divide between the web-forum/bb people and the mailing list folks. I don’t find too many folks who have their feet planted firmly on both sides of that fence.


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